Lughnasaywhat? August 2, 2013

I have issues with the Wheel of the Year.  I have issues with the timing of the cross-quarters, with the meaning attached of several of the eight stations, and with the names of most of the days.  Right, now I’m just going to focus on Lughnasadh, though.  To begin with, I think “Lughnasadh” is a terrible name for this holy day.  First, supposedly it’s an Irish cross-quarter day.  But it’s not even the name given by the 8th-10th century Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”), which is the primary historical source for the Irish cross-quarter days.  “Brón Trogaill” is actually the name the text gives for the beginning of autumn.  The name “Lughnasadh” comes from the 14th century Acallam na Senórach (“Colloquy with the Ancients”), which was written when the day was already being called “Lammas”.

Second, the name isn’t appropriate to the season because Lughnasadh (and Brón Trogaill) marked the beginning of autumn.  August is not the beginning of autumn, at least where I live, which officially begins in the U.S. on the autumnal equinox and unofficially the day after Labor Day.

Third, the association of the Lughnasadh with mourning does not correspond with the actual seasonal conditions.  According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn (“The Book of Invasions”), the god Lugh sang a song of lamentation for his foster mother, Tailtiu, on this date.  The middle of summer is not typically thought of as a time for mourning.  Likewise, “Bron Trogaill”, the name actually the name used in the Tochmarc Emire, means “wrath of the earth”, which might be appropriate for the fall or winter, but not the middle of summer (unless perhaps you live in the desert).

Fourth, “Lughnasadh” is derived from the name of the semi-obscure Celtic deity, Lugh.  The festival is supposed to commemorate the first harvest, but the association of Lugh with the harvest is weak.  The Cath Maige Tuired (“Battle of Magh Turedh”) describes how Lugh extorted the secrets of agriculture from the Fomorian king, Bres, as ransom after the Tuatha de Danaan’s victory over Fomorians.  But there are many deities with stronger associations with harvest-time, obvious examples being Demeter/Persephone and Osiris.  As far as I know, Lugh does not have any other associations that would especially connect him with this particular time of the year.

Fifth, the spelling of “Lughnasadh” is not phonetic in English.  If we’re going to keep the name “Lughnasadh”, it should be spelled closer to how it is pronounced: “Lunasa”, which is how it is actually spelled in modern Irish.

Sixth, and finally, Lughnasadh traditionally falls on July 31/August 1, which is about a week before the actual mid-point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox, which falls on August 7 this year.  Celebrating Lughnasadh on August 1 makes the Wheel of the Year lopsided.

Why did we ever start using the name “Lughnasadh”?  For once, we can’t blame it on Gerald Gardner.  Gardner’s coven originally observed the cross-quarter days, but his Book of Shadows gives no name for this date other than “August Eve”.  Likewise, Gardner’s source, Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, also did not give a name to the August 1st sabbat.  Robert Graves identified eight stations on his calendar in his The White Goddess, but he used the name “Lammas”, which was adopted by many Pagans and is still used.  “Lammas” is the name of an Anglo-Saxon harvest festival , but it is also the name of a Christian feast day (i.e., “Loafmas”). As far as I can tell, “Lammas” was name that was used by most early Wiccans and Pagans, and “Lughnasadh” was a relatively late addition.

But it’s not just the name that is the problem.  The real problem, I think, is that we are starting with a name, then working out what the day should mean from its etymology and history, and then trying to associate it with the season — which is completely backwards.  We need to look at the season, work out what the holy day should mean, and then come up with an appropriate name.  The year should turn the Wheel, not the other way around.

Now this will vary depending on where you live, of course.  Even within the U.S. there are different climate zones.  So what follows is just what works for me, but it illustrates what I think should be the right process:

1.  Look to the season.

I live in the Midwest.  Due to the seasonal lag, we’re still in the middle of summer in late July/early August.  In fact, it’s the hottest time of the year on average.  That the mid-point between the summer solstice and fall equinox (August 7 this year) corresponds roughly to the average peak temperatures.  August, then, is literally “mid-summer”, as in the middle of summer.  Of course, this would not be true across the U.S.  (Interestingly, in San Francisco, where a lot of Neopaganism developed, the temperatures do not peak till mid-September due to the Bay waters.)  The heat is the salient fact of the season for me.  If we happen to be going through a cool spell or the weather is rainy, I will delay the celebration.  I think it’s important to celebrate the station on a day that is hot and sunny.

2.  Work out what the day means mythologically in relation to the season. 

May Day is when I celebrate the mythological marriage of the Goddess and her consort, and the summer solstice is when I celebrate their sexual union (and the conception of the Dark Child from that union).  Due to the heat, August is when I celebrate the culmination or climax (pun intended) of the Goddess and her consort.  The heat of the sun is the reflection of their passion.  This is the day when the heat of their passion grows so hot that the Consort is actually consumed by its flames.

Interestingly, the closest Christian holiday is the Feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6.  The transfiguration of Jesus can also be seen as a kind of “consummation” by (divine) fire.  It occurred on top of a mountain, where Jesus was revealed in all his glory.  As such it was a kind of “climax”, which prefaced the “descent” of Jesus into his passion and sacrifice.  The climax and consummation of the Consort of the Goddess in the flames of his “passion” is, to my mind, its own kind of Pagan Transfiguration, if you will.

Since it is the middle of summer, it is also the beginning of the end of summer.  This is the moment when the flower of summer is blossoming at its fullest, and tomorrow it will begin to wilt.  This day is like fruit that has ripened to the point where it is its juiciest and tastiest, but on the next day it will begin to rot.  The meaning of this day, for me, is that pleasure is fleeting.  We must enjoy life while we can, knowing that it cannot last forever.  When we see the beautiful flower blossom, we must either leave it, knowing we may never see it again, or pick it, knowing that in doing so we also kill it.  As a family, we read a (toned-down) version of the hierosgamos or hierogamy from the Song of Songs.  Personally, I like to read the Sumerian text of Inanna and Dumuzi’s courtship and consummation, which is even more erotic than the Song of Songs.  As part of our ritual, we eat ripe juicy fruit and burn a bouquet of flowers.

3.  Choose a name for the day that fits the season and the myth.

The season itself suggests that the name “Midsummer” would be appropriate for this date.  The only problem is that, across the world, “Midsummer” is associated with the summer solstice.  Still, in our family, we never celebrated Midsummer before I was a Pagan, and so there’s no associations with the solstice.  So we call it “Mid-Summer” without any confusion.  The analogies I used above of ripening fruit suggests another name, “First Fruits”, which is a name commonly associated with the day by Pagans.  While technically we enjoy many fruits year-round due to modern agriculture, here in the Midwest, many fruits are only available or more available (and seem more flavorful) in the summer months.  Given the mythological associations with the sexual union of the Goddess and God, another good name would be “Hierogamy“, although that might be confused with May Day, when the divine marriage is commonly celebrated.  (Also, it’s a bit of a mouthful for kids.)

Another name I came across in my research was “Gule”.  Lammas was called the “Gule of August” in medieval times.  No one knows for sure what”gule” means, but some people think it means “gullet” or “mouth”, as in the “mouth of August”.  Since this date marks the last high point before the slow slide down into autumn, “Gule” may be another appropriate, albeit somewhat archaic, name.  But since there could, theoretically, be a “Gule” for all the cross-quarter days, i.e., “Gule of November”, “Mouth of February” etc., I don’t really like the name.

For now, I’m sticking with “Mid-Summer” and “First Fruits” until I come up with something better.  (But I refuse to call it Lughnasadh.)

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  • Guest

    It’s also been called “First Fruits” which is appropriate in the Midwest. In late July/early August I used to celebrate the blueberry harvest.

    Outstanding post by the way.

    • Yeah, I mentioned that above. While the corn isn’t being harvested yet, there are a lot more fruits available in the summertime.

  • Having celebrated Lugnasadh yesterday and being brought to tears by the extremely profound experience and the flood of Mysteries in that station, good sir, I now more fully understand why there’s such extreme divides between the polytheists and the non-polytheists.

    Some of us may, really, as Julian B and others have suggested, be in separate religions but be still using the same umbrella term, and while your argument is well-constructed, it speaks nothing to my experience, less like speaking different languages and more like attempting to use math to write poetry.

  • Henry Buchy

    “But it’s not just the name that is the problem. The real problem, I think, is that we are starting with a name, then working out what the day should mean from its etymology and history, and then trying to associate it with the season — which is completely backwards. We need to look at the season, work out what the holy day should mean, and then come up with an appropriate name. The year should turn the Wheel, not the other way around.”

    more than that…… there’s 2 wheels which have been conflated. the “cross quarters” are neither calendrical or astronomic/astrologic. They are triggered by ‘earthly’, natural phenomenon. They were also tied to the land, locally, indigenously, so not all of them were observed, nor observed in the same manner everywhere.
    The astronomical days( solstices, equinoxes) are global, that part of the wheel does turn the year. They are also heraldic, in the sense they announce the coming of the season and let one know to pay attention to the coming changes of the land.
    I agree with what you say about ‘looking at the season’. The ‘cross quarters’ can reflect and celebrate, like they once did, a closeness to the character of the land, the local land. If anything, think of the diversity of celebration that would create, and folks would learn of the specific tides that run through the very land beneath their feet.

    • Oh, I really like that idea of seeing the quarter days as heralding the change and the cross-quarter days marking the actual changes. I’ve played with the idea of marking the cross-quarter according to actual events, like the turning/falling of leaves the coming of the flocks of geese in the fall, and the first melt or the first green shoots in the spring. This would force me (and my kids) to pay closer attention to the actual changes in nature.

  • macfadzen

    Not sure how to approach this response, but the wheel of the year of the year is not the same for me has it seems to be for you. Your reference to modern agriculture, and the goverment can some how be involved is a bit problematic. In your reference to Jung he does seem to indicate that the attempt to rationalize the spirtual can be counterproductive. I try not to attempt to give meaning to my spiritural values, as much as the other way around?

    I grew up in Maine so the beginning of summer was in May while Winter started with November, seasonally speaking whether I could play out doors with or without a coat. Midsummer was always more a magical time just like
    Shakespeare said it would be. While winter was when the constellation Orion made his appearance in the night sky. As to location, as seasons go I think it is far more about latitude than longitude. I have no objection to leaving an offering at the alter I’m passing by.

    As a Pagan I tend to see things as cyclic so I relate the passage of each day to the passage of a year, and mid-day (regardless of the time) is mid-day and not in the afternoon because it’s the warmest. So I don’t have a problem with August being the warmest month while Febuary is the coldest. Celebrating the beginning of summer at midsummer to me is like celebrating the beginning of the day at midnight, and yes I do know that each day really does start at midnight but it just seems more natural to wait for sunrise.

    I too refer to this time as Lammas, it’s also when the vegetable gardens really started to produce. In Maine it was blueberry season. That was in the fifties and sixties, no idea what it looks like now, what with progress and all.

    Personally I feel the solstice/equinox are masculine fixed while the cross quarters are more lunar/feminine (suspect I am probably alone on that one). It’s because of those warm summer nights as a child, laying out in the hay fields, the fire flies, really was the most magical time of life that I tend to get my panties in a wad about moving mid-summers eve. As for mid winter when I look up, he will still be there, at his zenith, no longer behind the summer sun.

    In the end I guess what you are looking for really determines how and where you look, as the bard said “a rose by any other name”.
    — except for mid summers eve of course.

    W MacFadzen

    sorry about the rant

    • Oooh, you gave me an idea for organizing the Wheel of the Year by the constellations. Not a new idea. Many ancient pagan cultures did this, but I think we moderns pay even less attention to the procession of the zodiac than we do the phases of the moon.

  • M. Jay Lee

    I like your take on this seasonal moment. This is really the first year I have seriously celebrated the entire Wheel of the Year. To me both Lammas (I prefer this term over Lughnasadh) and Imbolc, the polar opposite celebration, feel a little “out of season” in my environment. The beginning of August is still very much full summer where I live, as you mentioned it is often the hottest part of summer, and the time of Imbolc, early February, is still very much winter, not really early spring yet. Part of this “out of season” feeling I think comes from the fact that the Wheel is very much focused on the sun cycle and not the temperature cycle, a considerable lag in my part of the world.

    I am celebrating the Wheel this year using the PaGaian scripts and in this tradition Lammas is really a celebration of what Brian Swimme calls the “All Nourishing Abyss” – the undifferentiating ground of being from which all emerges and all returns. The color of this celebration in the PaGaian tradition is black. It is actually the darkest of all the feast days. It is a celebration of the sacredness of the Dark. Lammas marks the beginning of Gaia’s yearly exhalation because Earth’s tilt is now moving us away from Sun and the days are getting shorter. So Glenys Livingston has chosen this time as the time to recognize the sacredness and the beneficence of darkness and dissolution, as Imbolc is a recognition of light and differentiation. Harvest is still a part of the Lammas theme, but it is not the bounty that was celebrated at Summer Solstice. It is more about remembering that we too are on the Wheel and are a part of the harvest.

    I think the themes addressed in the PaGaian Lammas ritual are very important, but I am not sure how my group is going to react to all this darkness in the middle of summer when we have our Lammas celebration next Saturday.

    In one way Lammas really does mark the end of summer in my community, because most of the schools around here will start their fall semester this Monday. Summer things are also on deep discount in the stores and already the fall stuff is on the shelves. All this gives me the feeling that culturally our attention has moved away from summer and towards fall. Let’s face it, in our world the rhythms of schools (even for the child-free like me) and shopping have a much greater impact on us then the cycles of agriculture.

    • Thanks M. Jay. I feel the same way about Imbolc, but that’s a rant for another day. Personally, I make the solstices and equinoxes about light/darkness and the cross-quarter days about the temperature.

      I have really got to make time to investigate Glenys’ tradition myself. And thanks for the Swimme reference. I found this link interesting: The idea of the pregnant abyss is one that has a long history dating back to Jung, Hegel, Schelling, and Jacob Boehme. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

      I think that paradox you describe (darkness in summer) is at the core of many of the high days. Yule is about light in darkness. For me, mid-summer is about darkness in light. The fall equinox is about death from life, and the vernal equinox is about life from death.

      That’s true what you wrote about the cultural cycles. I don’t know if that’s something to celebrate or resist, though. Culturally, we’re always looking forward to the next thing instead of being present: Christmas preparations start before Thanksgiving, etc. I think it’s terrible that school starts when it’s still summertime.

  • I agree that Lughnasa probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for nature-based Pagans. In the Wiccan wheel of the year, it’s one of the holidays that is most confused in terms of meaning (is it a harvest festival? a celebration of funeral games for Lugh’s mother? the death of the harvest lord?). To make it make sense theologically, you have a choose a resonant thread and put it in context, like this Irish resident does:

    • Bill Wheaton

      I’ve never been confused by it. I’ve known about it since I was six and celebrated it since 16. It’s all of the things you mention, and several others. I don’t see the need to emphasize only one thing for each sabbat. That compartmentalizes it too much for me. It takes away the richness of it and turns good, wholesome bread into thin gruel. I will say, that the article you link to adds to the richness – love it.

      But while I am interested in the Irish side of things, it is not my only heritage. Am I to forgo my Welsh side? And what about my anglo-saxon side? What about my Swiss, Scots or my Canadian side? Or my German side or Swedish? I’m all of these, and my people come from over the mountain where the weather is different. Why should I have to choose only what affects me now? Different names, different traditions different histories, allow me to integrate them within. In honoring the ancestors, sometimes, I’ll call it Lammas, and sometimes Lúnasa, and sometimes Gwyl Awst, and sometimes first harvest. It’s when I get my first potatoes from the garden, the tomatoes are at their peak, and onions are coming on and the wheat is all finished (I made bread with it, but next year I plan on enough to make beer), all is scarce and bland up to now, but over the weekend, I stuffed myself with ‘Mater sandwiches. How fitting! And to know that it is also a holy sacrifice to do it is grand – I can have my cake and eat it too. What a cool religion.

  • Bill Wheaton

    Why the seemingly incessant need to rename things? They are what you put into them. They have their own thought-form built up by generations of Pagans and Wiccans.

    Midsummer for a replacement name for this time of year? By now, the summer is noticably changing away from the middle of summer. How can it be the middle of summer? Dude, seriously? This seems iconoclastic to me in order to put one’s own mark on it. Certainly there are ways to make a mark, and there is plenty of need – particularly with theology, liturgy, connection mythology and such. But this isn’t one of them, IMO. Let it change organically

    • It is the middle of summer here. But I guess not where you live.

      I don’t think tradition alone is a good reason to keep something around. But then I don’t believe in thought-forms. Anyway, I’m not trying to change it community-wide; I’m just explaining why it doesn’t work for me.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    In Celtic religion, Lugh is a god of the tribe who compels the powers of untamed nature (such as the Fomorians) to yield the bounty of the earth to humanity. That’s why Lugh compels Bres to give up the secrets of agriculture. Lunasa in Ireland was associated with “dead” goddesses like Lugh’s foster-mother (who died clearing the land for cultivation) or Carmun (a Fomorian demoness) because agriculture involves violence being done to wild nature- trees are cut down or burnt up, the land is torn up, etc. Thus “the wrath of the earth.” The tribe has no choice but to “harm” the earth in agriculture, so the earth must be placated with a festival or “funeral games” in its honor. This happens around the beginning of harvest, which started around the time of Lunasa. (In Ireland, not necessarily elsewhere.) It only doesn’t make sense if you try to apply the Celtic/Irish concepts in a Wiccan context- which is not their origin.

    • That is the most sensical explanation for the name that I have ever encountered. Thank you!

      • Christopher Scott Thompson

        Glad to help. 🙂

  • Thirll

    Gule is thought by some to be an Anglicisation of Gwyl (Welsh meaning feast) and in Wales the 31st/1st is still known as Gwyl Awst . Though interestingly the folklore surrounding it in some parts (Cardiganshire mainly) is more to do with Shepherds than first harvest

  • I call it Lammas, as I never feel quite comfortable with Celtic names. (I do think First Fruits is a wonderful name.) This year in addition to our usual celebrations we also watched Dancing at Lughnasa on DVD, and while the movie was by no means spectacular it did serve to make the Celtic name more comfortable to me.

    As for timing, I’ve struggled to overcome my generally rigid mindset and
    remember something I learned from Kenny Klein. All these cross-quarter
    days were tied to natural-agricultural events, so why fixate on a
    particular date? As you observe, Astro-Lammas falls on August 7 this year, so I
    figure any time in the first week of this month is propitious.

    But what I really wanna say is that this holiday is the closest to my heart, the best day of the year. That’s for three reasons. Firstly, it was the first Pagan celebration in which I participated. Secondly, it corresponds to where I am in the cycle of life. And the third reason is exactly what you’re grousing about here: It’s obscure. I’m sure you can see how this might be construed as a virtue. So I read your post with some amusement. And I can’t help thinking there are opportunities here.

    Also I like the heat, so that’s a fourth reason. John Cleland Host calls this a thermistice. Yes, in New Orleans it’s incredubly hot and humid. But culturally, for us, it’s the end of summer. School starts next week. Some schools are already in session here today. I could never call it Midsummer for that reason, plus also I’m way too Nordic for that. So there’s a wee bit melancholy to Lammas too, because I love summer, and that tincture of sadness seems an inextricable part of it all.

    And then there’s the dead raccoon we found under our house, but now I’m rambling.

  • Stephanie

    Well, you’re looking at it from the perspective of someone who celebrates it because it’s one of the holidays celebrated as part of the Wheel of the Year. To someone who celebrates Lughnasadh because of a connection to Lugh, it makes perfect sense, particularly in the context of the whole myth. Lugh’s mourning for his foster mother was because she literally worked herself to death making the land fit to plant, which is why her foster son established a harvest festival and funerary games in her honor. I’m sure to vaguely-Wiccish types it doesn’t make much sense at all, but for one to whom these are *my* gods, who have claimed me, rather than some soft-squishy-archetypal concepts, it does work.

    • That makes sense. Do you have a textual source for the Tailtiu myth?

  • Susan

    While it may seem like a generalization, I celebrate Lammas, the name given to me for the holiday long ago, as a harvest festival but not just in the traditional harvesting of fruits and vegetables. I also try to look at it from the perspective of “you reap what you sow”, as a metaphor. What kinds of seeds do you plant in your life in the early spring? What kind of harvest are you reaping at this time and what kind of changes, if any, need to be made to help along your harvest in the fall to get ready for the winter? While I honor the deities associated with this time of year, I also consider it a time of reflection. We usually talk about Osiris and Lugh. They both make sense to me in their own way. In thinking about the holiday in this way, the wheel of the year keeps turning.

    Then I go find as much fresh wonderful produce as I can afford at the farmer’s market and share in the feasting. Yum!

  • Living The Wheel

    This pretty much sums up a lot of the problems I’ve always had with the 8 holy days, as well. In my area, it’s over 100 degrees on Lammas. Since my family has never observed anything remotely celtic, Lughnasadh just doesn’t resonate with me. Lammas is closer with my Anglo/Teutonic/Scandinavian family tree, but it’s still never been the beginning of fall in any place we’ve ever lived. When when living up north. I went through a period of boycotting Imbolc and Lammas because I just couldn’t relate to them until I finally started paying more attention to the land I’m living on and not the land old festivals are tied to. I call it Mid-Summer, too, but actually you mentioned one that might fit me far better than even that one does.

    August Eve.

    Renee B

  • Oakowl

    Wow – what a lot of thoughts came u p for me reading that!

    For me, celebrating Lughnasadh, Lammas, or any other name for it as a first-harvest festival at the beginning of August makes complete sense. I have a strong Celtic background in my family and my spiritual practice, so the name ‘Lughnasadh’ is comfortable for me. A lot of modern English words actually do help the word make sense phonetically, because quite a few words in the English vocabulary were derived from Gaelic roots. Lugh is similar to through, for example; and the final syllable ‘sadh’, while I can;t come up with an exact rhyme, makes sense with other letters paired with an H to soften them ‘th’, ‘ph’, etc. When I pronounce it is has a soft consonant on the end – Loo-na-sat is as close as I can spell it. I dislike the term Lammas because it is a Christian term for a Christian holiday – which is great, but not the path that my spirituality takes.

    I agree with you on celebrating on the 7th, and to me it IS on the 7th (and some nooks will say either the 1st or the 7th). I also regularly celebrate all of the 8 major festivals a few days off from their ‘correct’ date if it makes it easier for people to come or to schedule.

    If I could spontaneously celebrate it whenever I chose, it would be on the 1st day of fall not by the calendar or by a cultural schedule, but by the feel of the earth. I’ve noticed, and friends have agreed with me, that there are specific days that feel distinctly like the season has now changed. The sky is a different shade, the air has a different feel. I’ve noticed this for autumn as early as August 13 and as late as mid-September.

    Garden-wise, somewhere near the last week of July to the 1st week or 2 of August, vegetables start coming ripe (or ripening in greater quantity). Grasses are seeding heavily. Flowers that start blooming in June or early July are fading, while new ones take their place. Naturally where I live makes a difference in that, as well as how the summer has gone. This year, for example, the crook-neck squash were abundant and those are what we gave out to friends and neighbours.

    I love your term ‘First Fruits’ – I might begin using that at times when I’m celebrating with people of many traditions so that we can all relate!